“For me, Paan Singh was a hero. He did not commit any crime. If I thought he was a criminal then I would have never made this film,” says film-maker Tigmanshu Dhulia, speaking about his long-awaited film Paan Singh Tomar which opens in theatres on March 2.
Actor Irrfan Khan plays the protagonist in the film.
Speaking to the media at the Press Club of India here, Tigmanshu says barring senior sports journalist K. Datta, nobody present at the conference had ever seen Paan Singh. “For me it is not important whether Irrfan looks like Paan Singh. What matters is that Irrfan has played the character straight from his heart. The script touches your soul. If Paan Singh was a criminal, I would have never made this film. Perhaps Ram Gopal Varma would have…” said the film-maker, whose film has received a red-carpet welcome at various film festivals.
Previously, K. Datta had said that the actor bears quite a resemblance to the character he attempted to portray on screen. “When I saw Irrfan for the first time I knew he was the right choice. I had covered events in which Paan Singh ran and won with his well-measured strides. He was not a dacoit but an outlaw.”
Following his latest project, life has come full circle for Tigmanshu. It was while reading an article in a Sunday magazine that he learnt of Paan Singh and the idea of depicting him on the big screen came to him. “Through this article, I came to know that he was a kisan, a fauji and an athlete for seven years, and that he also won the national steeplechase championship. Since that day it has been my dream to direct a film on him.”
Admitting that research on Paan Singh, who turned from steeplechaser to outlaw, was a challenging task, Irrfan added that when UTV decided to fund the project, Tigmanshu and the research team visited the village where his encounter was staged in 1982. “But they (the villagers) were reluctant to even utter his name, let alone speak about him. Since our mission was to find out every detail about Paan Singh's life, we continued our research. A few interesting coincidences also occurred while making the film. While searching for a house, Tigmanshu selected one that, an Army man later told us, once belonged to Paan Singh.”
To match the long loping strides of the steeplechaser, Irrfan went through a gruelling schedule under the watchful eyes of Satpal Singh. “Before shooting, we underwent two months of training. Other athletes who trained under Satpal Singh were retained in the film.”
From his meeting with Mr. Dutta, the one person who had actually seen Paan Singh in the flesh, Irrfan said he learned a lot. “Before starting his run, he would gesture with his hand to indicate he was ready. This fact was developed and has been incorporated in the film.”